Amid royal baby hubbub, grandpa Charles' popularity on the rise

A few years ago, Britons wanted the crown to skip over the Prince of Wales. But that's changing.

Anna Gowthorpe/PA/AP
Britain's Prince Charles, the Prince of Wales, with six-month-old Emily Scott, as he meets crowds of well wishers on a visit to Bugthorpe, England, Tuesday. Although significant numbers of Britons would like the crown pass from Elizabeth directly to Prince William, the Prince of Wales has seen his image improve in recent years.

Like any proud grandparent, Prince Charles has been beaming following the arrival of the first child of his eldest son, William.

The birth also happens to come at a time when the British public has been showing signs once again of warming to the heir to the throne – a man sometimes viewed as distant, stuffy, and pompous, as well as not entirely willing to accept the limits of his largely ceremonial position.  

Support for the queen staying on the throne for life has been dropping: a survey in May by polling firm YouGov found that as many as one-third of Britons say she should at some point step down.

On top of that, the handover almost appears as if it is under way, with Charles preparing to stand in for his mother at a September summit of Commonwealth heads of state in Sri Lanka.

Yet in a country where sizable chunks of the public have wanted the throne to skip a generation in the event of the queen’s death and go straight to William, could the arrival of the new baby boy, who is now third in line to the crown, cause many to once again start looking to the future generations of royals rather than to Charles?

Skip Charles?

Not so, say experts on the British monarchy, or at least … not just yet.

“The birth will have a very benign influence on the monarchy for now,” says Anna Whitelock, a royal historian at Royal Holloway, University of London, and author of the recently published "Elizabeth's Bedfellows: An Intimate History of the Queen's Court."

“It will add a splash of glamour and youth, and the image of Charles and [his second wife] Camilla as doting grandparents holding the baby will help them, and particularly her,” Dr. Whitelock says. “But it's actual significance lies in the future. The idea that there will be more attention towards a younger generation may come, but what holds all of that in check for now is the queen."

"Until the queen dies, all questions will be held in check, but the minute she does, then questions such as ‘do people want Charles to cede?’ or ‘do people actually even think the monarchy is relevant?’ will be asked,” Whitelock adds. “Although people are excited about this baby, there could be a real contradiction between the immediate excitement and how we feel about a monarchy which sets someone apart and above from everyone else.”

In the past, there has been evidence of Charles losing out in the popularity stakes to younger royals, and particularly to William. In 2010, an ICM poll found that 64 percent of people wanted William to be next in line to the throne, while a YouGov poll in the same year found the majority of Britons thought William would make a better king than his father.

Coverage in some quarters – suggesting that Charles is overstepping his constitutional role by lobbying ministers – has also caused controversy, as have questions about his tax arrangements, or lack of them.

In the face of questioning by a committee of MPs in charge of scrutinizing public expenditure last week, a royal aide was forced to defend why the prince was not liable to pay corporation tax or capital gains tax.

He insisted that the Duchy of Cornwall – which provides the prince with a private income – was not a corporation and that Charles voluntarily pays income tax. The prince was paid £19 million ($29 million) last year from the duchy estate, which is worth £762 million ($1.1 billion), but paid just over £4 million ($6 million) in income tax and value added tax (VAT).

Princely rebound

Recently however, Charles appears to have recovered ground in terms of public confidence.

A YouGov poll carried out last summer, after his well-received appearances and speeches during the queen’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations, found that 44 percent of people polled wanted him to be king, compared to 38 percent for William.

“There has been a quite substantial recovery overall in public support for the royals after being at a low ebb in the 1990s,” says Roger Mortimore, director of political analysis at pollster Ipsos MORI, which last year polled public approval for William at 62 percent, making him the most popular member of the family. Charles’s rating was 21 percent, behind the queen, William’s brother Harry, and the Duchess of Cambridge, Kate Middleton.

“A big part of that low point in the 1990s was tied up with Diana. Even before her death, it was clear that there was a Diana camp and a Charles camp. At least part of the bad press that the family as a whole was getting was around the breakup of that marriage. After her death, there were people who effectively blamed Charles for it,” says Dr. Mortimore.

“That has pretty much died out now, and Charles has been becoming steadily more popular. You certainly don’t get a feeling [of] a sort of rough, underlying hatred of Camilla that maybe there was some years ago. The vast majority of people are now comfortable again with the idea of Charles as the heir to the throne.”

Other pollsters agree. 

“While he and his wife are less popular than other members of the family, particularly younger ones, Prince Charles has managed to substantially rehabilitate his position in recent years,” says Joe Tywman, Director of Political and Social Research at YouGov.

“The support goes in line with events. The royal family is very effective with its public relations machine, and events associated with particular members of the family, where possible, are used to boost popularity. The jubilee and Olympics were important, but even the royal wedding between William and Kate was important. Charles was presented as the doting father, with the fact that it was his Aston Martin in which the couple drove away in being emphasized.”

According to Mr. Tywman, unhappiness about Charles’ tax affairs has not gained traction beyond the “left-of-center chattering classes.”

“That coverage has not permeated beyond broader consciousness. Having said that, there is no reason to suggest that definitely won’t be the case, although the most likely outcome is that the palace and its PR machine will find a way of dealing with it in the way that the palace neutralized the beginnings of unhappiness about the Queen’s tax affairs in the 1990s.”

A long wait?

The odds, then, are that Charles will ascend to the role that he has been preparing for all his life, even with the arrival of yet another young royal for the public to dote on.

In fact, it may be William who is in for a long wait, just like his father.

As Whitelock points out, “If the queen lives as long as her mother she will be on the throne until 2027. Charles would then be 80, and if he then rules for another 10 years, you are looking at William being in late middle age. So this baby may end up being the first monarch of the 22nd century.”

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